The Lord of the Rings is a masterpiece of modern literature. While it is well-documented that he was not trying to write a Christian novel, Tolkien’s faith certainly influenced the work. One of the most prominent concepts in Christianity (and consequently, of the Lord of the Rings) is that of redemption, the idea that even the most fallen and corrupted beings have the potential to be saved and restored. Anthropologically, Tolkien believed in the potential of every individual. Jim McDermott, an editor at America Magazine, wrote an excellent article that summarizes well Tolkien’s beliefs on humanity: that everyone has the capability to “travel either way” on the path to good or evil, including orcs!
In this article, we will explore the theme of redemption in The Lord of the Rings, focusing on the concept of the Fall in Christian theology, the different types of redemption seen throughout the book, and how they are reflected in the narrative arcs of Gandalf, Frodo, Boromir, Faramir, and Gollum. In addition, I will compare those ideas to some of the biblical passages that reflect the same idea. I want to make clear though: the passages I quote are not necessarily what Tolkien had in mind. As previously stated, it is hard, if not impossible, to know what was influencing Tolkien specifically because he himself did not seem to know. But knowing that there is a deep religious influence on the work, I hope to uncover some of what those influences may have been, subconscious though they may be. *All Scripture references will be from the CSB, unless otherwise noted.
The Fall and Its Effects
The concept of the Fall is central to Christian theology. According to the Bible, humanity was created in a state of perfection, but through the disobedience of Adam and Eve, sin entered the world, corrupting all of creation and separating us from God. This Fall affects not only our relationship with God but also our relationships with our neighbors, ourselves, and even the world around us. Genesis 3 details this, as we see through God evicting them from the Garden of Eden, through Adam’s blaming of Eve after being confronted on his sin, as Adam and Eve experience shame at their nakedness (a topic for another time), and even how the earth turns against them, the thorns of the earth rising up to cause them to toil. Every relationship imaginable was altered by sin. The Christian story, much like our beloved tale of hobbits and others, is bent towards redemption and reconciliation.
The Lord of the Rings reflects this idea of the Fall and its effects in several ways. The Ring itself represents the ultimate embodiment of sin and corruption, and it has the power to corrupt even the purest of souls. As Gandalf says, “The Ring has a will of its own, and it will betray you. It seeks only to return to the hand of its master; it seeks to be found” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 1, Chapter 2). The Ring’s influence can be seen in the way that characters like Boromir and Gollum are tempted by it and ultimately corrupted by it.
The effects of the Fall can also be seen in the way that the characters relate to each other. The world of Middle-earth is full of different races and cultures, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, and there is often tension and conflict between them. The characters’ journey to destroy the Ring requires them to overcome their differences and work together, reflecting the idea that the Fall has also affected our relationships with our neighbors.
The Different Types of Redemption in The Lord of the Rings
Despite the darkness and corruption that permeate the world of Middle-earth, The Lord of the Rings is ultimately a story of hope and redemption. The characters in the book are all in need of some form of redemption, and their journeys reflect different aspects of this theme. Let’s examine several notable characters and note how the theme plays out.
Gandalf is one of the most prominent characters in The Lord of the Rings, and his journey reflects the Christian concept of redemption through resurrection and the defeat of death. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf is killed in his battle with the Balrog, but he is later resurrected and returns as Gandalf the White. Gandalf is even more of a complex figure in the books than the popular films by Peter Jackson, and one of the things left out in the films is Gandalf’s struggle with his purpose as an Istari. This resurrection represents a victory over death and a restoration of Gandalf’s power and purpose. As he tells Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli, “I am Gandalf, and Gandalf means me!” (The Two Towers, Book 3, Chapter 5).
Many people, including non-religious ones, are likely familiar with the term “born-again” Christians. What that term refers to is the Christian concept of salvation. The belief is that because of the Fall, humanity is corrupted (Tolkien has slightly irregular beliefs on this. See “The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien”, letters 250 and 253). All humans are born under Adam, and therefore are born into sin and death. Salvation then, in perhaps its simplest explanation, is being “born” again, but this time under Jesus Christ, who has defeated sin and death. “…Because of his great mercy [God] has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3b). Further, this new birth is redemptive because of the work it does on the corrupted soul: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, and see, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
In this way, Gandalf represents well this redemptive work. He slays his demon, dies, but is resurrected. He is no longer Gandalf the Grey, but the more powerful Gandalf the White, signifying the transformation taking place through his death.
Frodo is the character who most directly interacts with the Ring, and his journey reflects the Christian concept of redemption through repentance, sacrifice, and forgiveness. Throughout the book, Frodo is plagued by doubt, fear, and despair, but he ultimately resists the temptation of the Ring and sacrifices much of himself to destroy it. He left the home that he dearly loved, was hounded and eventually stabbed with a Morgul-knife by the Witch King of Angmar (a wound which stuck with him until he was able to get to Tol Eressea, long after his journey to destroy the Ring). He traveled far and endured betrayal from Boromir, Gollum, and was misunderstood by Faramir. The quest very nearly claimed his life.
Theologically, sacrifice is critical to understanding who Jesus was. In order for humanity to be delivered over from the effects of sin, it would take someone who could overcome it themselves and then destroy it. As Mark 10:45 says, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” and Hebrews 2:14 elaborates: “Now since the children have flesh and blood in common, Jesus also shared in these, so that through his death he might destroy the one holding the power of death…”
Frodo’s act of self-sacrifice is the ultimate act of repentance and reflects the Christian idea of the need for a sacrifice to atone for sin. Frodo’s journey also highlights the importance of forgiveness, as he must forgive Gollum for his betrayal and ultimately shows him mercy. Without his sacrifice, there would have been no hope for Middle-earth, just as without Christ, there is no salvation in Christianity.
Boromir is one of the characters who fall victim to the temptation of the Ring, but his journey also reflects the Christian concept of redemption through confession and repentance. Boromir initially sees the Ring as a tool to use against the enemies of Gondor, and while intending good, he is eventually overcome by its power and tries to take it from Frodo. After he realizes his faults, Boromir confesses his sin to Aragorn and dies defending Merry and Pippin, redeeming himself through his sacrifice.
Within orthodox Christianity, the way for a person to lay claim to the benefits of Christ’s death is to recognize their need for redemption, die to themselves and offer themselves up to the Lord (Luke 9:23). Boromir recognized his betrayal, and then turned to the cause of the Fellowship, laying down his life in the process to try and save Merry and Pippin. Even though Boromir ultimately succumbs to his wounds, he is redeemed despite his sins for his repentance-led sacrifice.
Faramir is a character who serves somewhat as a foil to Boromir. His journey reflects the Christian concept of redemption through humility and obedience, and in not failing in the ways his brother did. Faramir is tempted by the Ring when Frodo and Sam are captured by his men, but he resists its power and lets them go free. This act of obedience and humility is a contrast to Boromir’s arrogance and pride, and it leads to Faramir’s redemption and the eventual defeat of Sauron. When given the opportunity to take the ring, Faramir unlike his brother, says, “But fear no more! I would not take this thing, if it lay by the highway. Not were Minas Tirith falling in ruin and I alone could save her, so, using the weapon of the Dark Lord for her good and my glory. No, I do not wish for such triumphs, Frodo son of Drogo” (The Two Towers, Book 2, Ch.5).
Jesus, likewise, is provided opportunities to give into temptation, but refuses (Luke 4). As a result, 1) the task of providing salvation for humanity is kept alive, and 2) Jesus succeeds where Adam failed (Romans 5:12-15). Faramir ends up redeeming himself of his father’s ill-perception but also redeems his brother, and in a real sense, all of humanity, in his resistance to temptation.
Gollum is one of the most complex and tragic characters in The Lord of the Rings, and his journey reflects the Christian concept of redemption through grace and mercy. Gollum is initially corrupted by the Ring and becomes consumed by his obsession with it. However, Frodo’s mercy and compassion towards him eventually leads to a change of heart, and Gollum is able to play a crucial role in the destruction of the Ring. While Gollum is not fully redeemed, his journey reflects the idea that redemption is often a gradual process and that even the most fallen beings can be saved through grace and mercy.
In The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf says to Frodo, “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment” (Book 1, Chapter 2). This statement reflects the Christian idea of redemption through grace and mercy, and it foreshadows Frodo’s eventual redemption of Gollum. That grace and mercy shown totally changed the trajectory of Gollum’s miserable life. His life remained tragic, but Gollum was able to experience compassion once more, the warmth of a love that was able to thaw out and soften his once-cold and calloused heart, enough to free Smeagol from the grasp of Gollum.
Scripture teaches that all of humanity deserves death for their sins (Romans 6:23), but it is by the grace of God that we are offered salvation. Frodo showed compassion towards Gollum even when first meeting him, which parallels well with the idea that Christ loved us even while we hated him (Romans 5:8-9). Because of that, Christianity also believes no one is without hope, that God can save all types of people. The apostle Paul, writer of nearly a third of the New Testament, even persecuted and murdered Christians before having an encounter with Christ that led him to convert and serve him as Lord (Acts 9).
Drawing comparisons, what we can clearly see through Gollum’s story and Scripture is that love is required for redemption, and in that way, we can actually first be redeemed by someone other than ourselves. They also both propose that anyone can be redeemed, that no one is too far gone to be impacted by grace and mercy.
In conclusion, The Lord of the Rings is a work of literature that is deeply rooted in Christian theology, and the theme of redemption is one of its most prominent and compelling aspects. The book reflects the Christian concept of the Fall and its effects on the world and its inhabitants, and it presents a vision of hope and redemption that is both complex and nuanced. The journeys of the various characters in the book reflect different aspects of this theme, and they are all interconnected in a way that reflects the interconnectedness of sin and redemption in Christian theology. Ultimately, The Lord of the Rings is a story of hope, sacrifice, and redemption that continues to resonate with people as a result.